By Jonathan More, Vice-Principal

The headline of Laura Pappano’s article in the New York Times declared 2012 to be “The Year of the MOOC.” With one online organisation boasting over 5 million students, as you might expect these “massive open online courses” are drawing significant attention. Traditional schools, colleges, and universities have also been experimenting with different forms of online education and, given the promise of profitability, many see the Internet playing an increasingly important role in the future of education.  

Of course, alternatives to face-to-face full-time education have been around for a while. In South Africa, UNISA started experimenting with distance education in the 1940s and distance education has been studied from a pedagogical point of view for some time. There are aspects of today’s online education that suggest we need to take a closer look at the implications of distance education as it is offered through the Internet.

Sherry Turkle is a psychologist, sociologist, and educator from MIT who has published a number of articles and books in which she analyses human interaction with technology. Not surprisingly, in her recent work, she has turned to studying the Internet and the way it is shaping us. In 2011 she published Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The title and subtitle are enough to explain the main argument of the book. Turkle discussed some of the book’s themes in a 2012 TED talk entitled “Connected, but alone?

In Reclaiming conversation: the power of talk in a digital age (2015), Prof Turkle argues that the dramatic changes in our communication technology — she writes specifically about the influence of smartphones and social media — are having serious negative effects on the way we communicate and relate to ourselves and one another.

My concern in this short blog, however, is what this communication revolution might mean for the teaching and training of the next generation of Christian leaders at George Whitefield College and the implications for discipleship in our churches.


“Being there”

There are many lessons to be learnt from Turkle, but I want to address just one significant element that is important in theological education: embodiment or, as Turkle puts it, “being there.”

Whether they be through email, social media, online discussion groups, or instant messaging, Turkle argues that our disembodied conversations are impoverished in comparison to those we have face-to-face. The result is that our relationships are also poorer for all these new modes of communication. It’s something we know instinctively — who would want their only interaction with a child or a friend to be via email or a chat app? It’s true that these tools have made communication faster and more convenient, and perhaps they have even raised our productivity — but productivity is a very poor criterion for relationship and community.

The traditional classroom experience offers both lecturer and student the opportunity of a face-to-face encounter. Anyone who has had the privilege of being taught be an excellent teacher will know the energising and stimulating experience that in-class engagement can produce. Many who choose to serve in the academic world, make that decision because they were inspired by teachers who did much more than simply deliver information.

Six-minute video clips (apparently the optimal length for online education) might present the student with the same information as a six-minute portion of a lecture, but there is much that is missing. The student is deprived of the concentrated debate that results from, but also constitutes, a good theological discussion. The student also loses the opportunity to see in these debates a godly model for how to argue one’s position and how to maintain fellowship despite disagreements. While online models attempt to replicate this interaction through chat groups or other discursive options, anyone who has been exposed to the comments on social media sites understand the limitations that this mode of discourse imposes. Online video lectures also remove the opportunity for the sorts of discussions that often occur outside the classroom. Students are denied valuable opportunities for growth in interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.

The lecturer in an online course is also disadvantaged. He or she misses the opportunity to gauge a student’s agreement, confusion, or discomfort on the basis of a smile or furrowed brow. It is impossible to adjust the speed or logical flow of a lecture that was recorded in a remote studio a few years before the student watched the video clip. These concerns would apply to education in almost any field. There is an even greater concern when it comes to theological education, though, and that arises from the connection between communication, relationship, and community. The lecturer is also unable to tailor the lesson to the audience or context as there is no personal relationship upon which to draw from. Vital encouragement and “spurring one another on” is often neglected by online lecturers as they are unaware of their students struggles.



In learning communities, personal engagement matters. Not surprisingly, some early research shows, for example, that online education is improved by face-to-face encounters. Turkle quotes the author of one such study: “The most important thing that helps students succeed in an online course is interpersonal interaction and support.” There is also a theological reason for the desirability of face-to-face education.

In Bonhoeffer’s seminary vision: a case for costly discipleship and life together (2015), Paul House explores the German theologian’s thinking and practice of theological education in order to address the situation that many seminaries find themselves in today.

From Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (published in 1939) House points to the importance of the visible Christian community for witness and discipleship. For Bonhoeffer, the Christian community is a gift from God: “it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today” (quoted by House, p. 107). It was crucial that Bonhoeffer’s theological students learnt how the Christian community – this precious gift – was shaped through prayer, the word of God, and mutual service, in order that they might properly serve as shepherds of such communities in the future. As House puts it, “[The seminary community] would exist to shape shepherds who in turn help churches develop into communing brothers and sisters in Christ. … Seminarians needed to understand the proper grounds of community so they could aid congregations in doing the same” (p. 137). It is very difficult to model a community of this sort in a MOOC.

Within a context in which they can engage face-to-face with their peers, their teachers, and the wider college family, students are better able to learn what a Christians “life together” looks like. They are able to learn and put into practice repentance, forgiveness, patience, and grace. Some will provide their peers with models of humility and leadership. The whole community will learn what daily life under the word of God looks like.

Of course, there will be good reasons (usually time and money) why some who feel called to Christian ministry are not able to benefit from full-time, face-to-face theological education. In such cases, any sort of theological training is better than none. At GWC the Explore correspondence course attempts to meet the needs of this group. But Turkle’s research suggests that when we ask about the preferred mode of theological education for those who would lead our churches, “being there” trumps the other options.

Modern communication technologies and the social  media they enable want to improve the way we communicate with one another. “Skype keeps the world talking,” we’re told on one such site. Another boasts, “Simple. Personal.” These tools certainly do eliminate some of the problems imposed on our communication by time and distance. Yet the very form communication now takes leads to a degeneration of the relationships communication is supposed to foster. Similarly, Turkle’s conclusions suggest that the tools used to make education affordable and available to as many people as possible, are also transforming education negatively.

Turkle is not a Luddite. She recognises the value of the various technologies that now form the fabric of much of our social discourse. Her plea is that we use these technologies with greater attention to what they’re doing to us and our relationships, and that we do so with greater intentionality. Creative and thoughtful teachers and students will look for ways that smartphones, tablets, the Internet, and various social media can be used to improve theological education without forfeiting valuable interaction. Those who are aware of Turkle’s work will do so cautiously.